Beguiling concert of French chanson, torch songs, café and cabaret songs by Magdalena Darby and friends

Lunchtime concerts at St Marks, Lower Hutt
Café Européen – Songs of Passion

Magdalena Darby (cabaret singer, chansonneuse) with Ian Logan (piano), Gary Stratton (accordion), Alistair Isdale (bass)

Torch songs, chansons, café music; French and derivative styles

St Marks church, Lower Hutt

Wednesday 27 July, 12:15 pm

Magdalena Darby’s bio begins with her studies at the Conservatorium of Music in Utrecht, but shies away from dates, early education, or when she came to New Zealand; one assumes she was born in the Netherlands. Before coming to New Zealand she lived in Mexico and presumably Paris. Her bio refers to performing in Paris as well as London and elsewhere in Europe (can we still assume that ‘Europe’ includes Britain?).

Throughout, her career has been a combination of teaching and cabaret-style singing. Her publicity refers to ‘torch songs’, perhaps not very familiar to the musical generalist, but it describes songs of broken love affairs, of lost love (which tends, I suppose, to be a major element in music of all kinds). The expression to ‘carry a torch for’ someone relates to the word in this context.

Paris was the biggest element in her repertoire, even if there were songs from several other parts of the world. That tone was set as the instrumentalists played Michel Legrand’s theme song from the much-loved film Les Parapluies de Cherbourg featuring Catherine Deneuve (which you can find in the Wellington Public Library). The three instrumentalists were clearly very comfortable in music of this style and era (mostly the 50s to 70s) and lent sensitive support to the singer.

Nearly half of her songs were French, by French singers or sung in French: names that appear in my ‘other self’s’ collection of LPs and CDs, like Serge Gainsbourg, Sidney Bechet (the jazz, soprano saxophonist), and Jacques Brel, but also Piazzolla’s Rosa Rio which she sang in French.

What has always attracted me to the French chanson has been the intellectual, heterodox, often politically dissident, even anarchic quality of their subjects, in addition of course to the edgy, rebellious or pathetic character of the love-songs.

Darby’s voice, exploiting the microphone with finesse, didn’t express just the pain of lost love in Gainsbourg’s songs (Les amours perdues, Les yeux pour pleurer and Indifférente), but an awareness of a fractured, lonely world, with a warmth and seductiveness that seems unique to French singers. Though Indifférente was deceptively upbeat and Les yeux pour pleurer an unusual story of cruel loss and the sudden appearance of a new love.

So one enjoyed hearing echoes and tones of voices like Piaf, even Josephine Baker, Françoise Hardy and males like Yves Montant, Jean Sablon, Charles Trenet…

Bechet’s Petite fleur was of course written for himself and his soprano sax, but lyrics were put to it later, giving it a perfectly Gallic chanson character. Here and throughout, one was seduced by a voice and a control of that voice that captured the idiom of the languages and utterly belied her years.

Darby’s clarity of diction and ability to capture the style of other cultures became clear in Spanish songs such as Carlos Almaron’s Un historia de un amor and Nino Rota’s Theme from The Godfather (the love theme with words by Larry Kusik); she sang the latter in its English version, with some in Italian (if I wasn’t fooling myself).

Her singing of the Second World War song Can’t get out of this mood (words by Loesser, set by Jimmy McHugh) succeeded in demonstrating how deeply a European style of lyric and music affected American popular music: Nina Simone was one of the most famous interpreters of that song in the late 50s, and later, Darby sang her But remember me which displayed her warm, low register, that so perfectly leapt into a high head voice in dealing with the spread of the song’s melody.

There was a break for accordionist Stratton to take front stage with a Piazzolla song, Fiebre, where I suppose the idea was an approximation of the bandoneon; but nothing quite matches that unique Buenos Aires instrument.

The song by Cy Coleman, A moment of madness seemed to step aside from the Gallic spirit that ruled in most of the recital; a song in which the singer tries to persuade herself that she doesn’t care about the moment of madness that ended badly, expressed with its series of short, almost sobbing phrases; but the singer succeeded in planting it convincingly in Paris.

Then there was Jacques Brel, a really tough singer to impersonate with any success; happily she didn’t attempt things like La valse a mille temps, or Marieke, or Ne me quitte pas. But in English, If we only have love, (Quand on n’a que l’amour) was a classic Brel melody the spirit of which, even without that inimitable voice, Magdalena Darby caught with integrity and conviction.

And the three-quarter hour ended with a surprising step to the east, into Yiddish song, which she sang in English, with a short excursion into German (Yiddish is very close to German – derived from Middle High German). At her hands, and with the impeccably idiomatic backing of (especially) pianist Ian Logan, and Gary Stratton and Alastair Isdale, the words and music took root firmly at L’Olympia, Paris, to bring this most beguiling little concert to an end.